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Proposed rule change to smoke management plan includes one-hour particulate threshold on prescribed burns

A proposed provision in a new rulemaking effort for the Oregon Smoke Management Plan has prompted pushback from local agencies and many throughout the state.

The regulatory plan was initially adopted in 1972 to maximize controlled burning opportunities and reduce the risk of wildlife and minimize smoke impacts on the public, the Department of Environmental Quality states on its website.

"ODF (Oregon Department of Forestry) conducts prescribed forest burning in Oregon to eliminate unwanted forest debris, restore forest health and reduce the potential for major wildfires," the DEQ explains. "Each year, the ODF burns approximately 150,000 acres of Oregon forests through the practice of prescribed burning. Smoke from this burning can occasionally pose a health risk to public health and result in air quality levels exceeding the federal air quality standard for fine particulate matter …"

Every five years or so, ODF conducts a periodic plan review with an advisory committee and DEQ participation. The parties have met five times in 2017 and 2018 and have developed several recommendations going forward. Most of the eight recommendations have not raised any public concerns, however, one that revises the definition of smoke intrusion has prompted feedback from more than 30 organizations, including the City of Prineville, the Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative and The Nature Conservancy.

The recommended revision is "to include a one-hour threshold at or above 70 ug/m3," which many agencies say would ultimately cause more harm to wildfire and smoke prevention efforts than good.

However, the proposed revision also includes an exemption from the one-hour threshold rule if the governing body in question develops a community response plan. The exemption would be considered by ODF and DEQ under advisement of Oregon Health Authority.

In a letter to ODF and DEQ approved by the Prineville City Council and signed by Mayor Betty Roppe, municipal leaders point out that "the fire season this year in Oregon is another reminder that more work is needed to reduce potential intense fires and to reduce wildfire risks near communities, which includes strategic prescribed fire in the forests surrounding our community."

The council stresses that they support the majority of the changes but take exception with the one-hour threshold and urge the two agencies retain the exemption option in the final version of the rules.

"… our support for the rule package as a whole is contingent on inclusion of the proposed exemption process for those communities with proactive communities and mitigation strategies," the city council states. "The exemption process is absolutely essential to the proposed rules if the one-hour standard remains in the final version of the rules. Without the one-hour exemption, our community, infrastructure, natural resources and firefighters will remain at risk with the increasing severity of wildfires."

The Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative likewise seeks inclusion of the exemption, pointing out in a letter to ODF and DEQ that "we and our partners are taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of such extreme wildfires, including the use of prescribed fire in the forests immediately around our communities."

"Data shows that the one-hour threshold would impose a significant limitation on the very prescribed burning priority areas that are most critical to our community wildfire protection efforts here in Prineville," the Collaborative stated.

The Nature Conservancy, a nationally based conservation group with a regional presence, pointed out in its dispute of the one-hour threshold that the provision has no scientific basis.

"In fact, in 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency stopped using a sub-24-hour standard, stating that, 'It is not valid to use shorter-term data to calculate an Air Quality Index value …' and that the current 24-hour federal standard '… protects against health effects associated with long- and short-term exposure periods.'"

The city council concluded in its letter that the fire-prone, dry forests of Central Oregon will burn sooner or later.

"Our choice is when and how they will burn in a controlled way during strategically planned and executed prescribed fire rather than out-of-control wildfires."

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